Young gymnasts build dreams on exploits of U.S. Olympic team

The Baltimore Sun
Local gymnasts cheer team USA

A dozen young gymnasts at Rebounders Gymnastics Center in Timonium took a break from practice Tuesday to watch the U.S. women's gymnastics team tumble, twirl and jump toward an Olympic gold medal.

As they prepare for their own competition season in the fall, the girls at Rebounders have been closely following the exploits of the U.S team, which went into Tuesday's events at the Rio Olympics as heavy favorites — and came away with gold, besting silver medalist Russia by more than eight points, 184.897-176.688.

Taking a break from her balance beam practice, 9-year-old Gabriella Serck-Hanssen said U.S. team leader Simone Biles, 19, of Texas is her favorite gymnast on the squad — though Gabby Douglas, 20, of Los Angeles might be a close second.

"I like Gabby, too, because she has the same name as me," Gabriella said, twirling her hair.

Colleen Grossman, general manager at Rebounders, said the Olympics are always a big time for young gymnasts. Many of the girls see themselves as potential future Olympians, she said.

On Monday, one excited 6-year-old student told Grossman she couldn't wait to be on TV.

Grossman said she tries to temper those expectations, encouraging youngsters to just have fun with the sport. "Gymnastics is tough," she said. "It's demanding, both physically and mentally."

Still, Olympic fever can be contagious — and it isn't restricted to students. Rebounders coaches Jessica Haddaway and Nicolette Vignola said they also looked forward to watching Team USA.

Haddaway, 28, who competed in gymnastics at Rutgers University, said she had "stayed up pretty late on Sunday" watching the U.S. team in the qualifying round in Rio.

Vignola, 23, a former Towson University gymnast who was named a Scholastic All-American by the National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches/Women in 2014, has a personal connection to the 2016 Games.

Originally from New Jersey, she had been a teammate of Laurie Hernandez, a 16-year-old member of this year's Olympic team.

"I remember her being so happy all the time," Vignola said. "It's crazy she's there [in Rio]."

Haddaway said gymnasts often consider the gym a second home and their teammates part of an extended family.

"You realize when you're done how it helped balance your whole life," she said.

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, just as the final was beginning in Rio, a computer at Rebounders displayed an online stream of the games. The girls gathered in front of the screen, sharing snacks and talking about their favorite gymnasts and routines.

Gabrielle moved around a few times, trying to find the best spot. Her eyes lit up as U.S. team came on screen.

Sophia DiDonato, also 9, noted that Biles had looked so serious in the qualifying round, but now she was all smiles on TV.

"She's so cool," Sophia said.

mearls@baltsun.com

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